Heartland, Part 5 (Not Just Farmland)

On June 22, 2017 · 1 Comments

A previous article in this series noted the abundance of farmland with little else to be seen during my Heartland excursion. That didn’t provide a completely accurate picture. Variations appeared in unexpected ways although I needed to travel to the margins to find them. We charted our course purposefully. It allowed us to experience a few geological features that maybe didn’t fit cleanly into notional images of the American Midwest. Not everything out there fell within endless fields to the horizon.

Lots of Farmland, Of Course


Rural Iowa

Even the endless farmland offered scenic beauty although its prevalence sometimes made me wish for something else. I began to take it for granted. At some point towards the end of the trip I realized I hadn’t done much to capture its simple elegance. Then I had trouble finding a good subject. Suddenly this barn appeared along a quiet rural byway. It embodied what I’d been sensing all along in thousands of different places throughout the journey. The architecture seemed peculiar to eastern Iowa where I spotted it, and to adjoining western Illinois. The barn itself appeared fairly standard. However I couldn’t recall seeing a similar cupola — or whatever one might call it — quite like it in other parts of the country. I guessed it helped lift hay bales into the loft.


The Beach


Michigan City

Our journey reminded me once again of the magnificent sand dunes on the eastern and southern flanks of Lake Michigan. I recounted the geology last summer when I explored outside of Grand Rapids. Essentially, glaciers melting at the end of the last Ice Age left a lot of debris behind. Winds and waves pushed glacial drift eastward, forming those wonderful sandy beaches of Indiana and Michigan.

Back home, I would never try to drive to the beach during Memorial Day weekend even though the Atlantic Ocean beckoned only a couple of hours away. I’d pick a more obscure day to miss the crowds and traffic. Somehow, even though I should have known better, I failed to grasp that Lake Michigan served a similar purpose for ten million people living in the Chicago metropolitan area. The lake, with its massive size, looked a lot like an ocean with smaller waves and fresh water. Throw in sand dunes and pristine beaches, and it completed the illusion. Feel free to insert sarcastic remarks about Easterners and their ignorance of places beyond their noses if you like.

Thank goodness for Waze. It took us around the worst of the traffic heading into Michigan City, Indiana and saved us at least an hour. I still carried my trusty paper map as a backup although technology certainly saved the day this time. It allowed us to visit the beach at Washington Park (map).


Lighthouses


Michigan City Lighthouse

Actually, I targeted Michigan City for its lighthouses. The combination of Indiana and lighthouses seemed odd, and yet a few lighthouses actually existed along its Lake Michigan shoreline. I collected lighthouse visits, another one of those things I counted compulsively, so it led us that way. Michigan City included two lighthouses, one a museum and one a functioning navigational aid. The beach was just a nice bonus.

A land speculator wanted to create Indiana’s first harbor in the 1830’s. He purchased a site where Trail Creek fed into the lake and he platted a town there. A proper harbor needed a lighthouse to guide ships into its port so he set aside room for that too. The first one didn’t work out as planned so another one came along in 1858 (map) and it came to be known as the Michigan City Lighthouse.

As shipping in Michigan City increased, primarily grain and lumber, a brighter light was needed to guide ships into the busy port. In 1858, the U.S. Government constructed a lighthouse using Joliet stone for the foundation and Milwaukee or "Cream City" bricks for the superstructure.

That’s the one in the photograph, above, the current home of the Michigan City Historical Society’s Old Lighthouse Museum.


East Pierhead Lighthouse

Then came the East Pierhead Lighthouse (map), also known as the Michigan City Breakwater lighthouse, built in 1904. The lens and lantern moved from the old lighthouse to the new one at that time, too. Lighthouse keepers continued to live in the earlier structure while tending the light at the end of the pier. Sometimes ferocious storms pummeled the lake. I imagined what it must have been like trying to scoot along that narrow catwalk from shore to tower as icy waves crashed across the pier. We visited on a day with a light chop and even then a little water pushed onto the concrete.


Canyons


Starved Rock

Canyons seemed unlikely as we drove across the flatness of central Illinois. Yet, Starved Rock State Park included them with abundance. Many features resulted from a cataclysmic event and an unusual geology. The Illinois River ran along the park’s northern edge. A great flood tore through there sometime around 15,000 years ago, an event called the Kankakee Torrent. Melting glaciers had formed a lake and it burst, scouring limestone along the riverbank. It carved huge bluffs in a matter of days. Wonderful scenic vistas crowned those same bluffs today (photo).

The park got its name from one of those bluffs. The explanation tied back to a legend, probably untrue although the story persisted. Supposedly, in some sort of dispute, a tribe of Native Americans besieged members of the Illini tribe who then sought refuge on a bluff. Surrounded, and unwilling to surrender, they died of starvation. The place became Starved Rock.

The park also contained several canyons behind the bluffs. Small streams carved into the limestone in wonderful terraces accompanied by waterfalls. French Canyon, named for the early European explorers of this area, became its most iconic feature (map). That’s the one in the photograph, above. Lots of people traveled to the park just to see that one attraction. It wasn’t much more than an hour away from Chicago, making Starved Rock the most visited state park in Illinois, with two million visitors per year.


Mighty Rivers


Heartland Marathon Series - Day 4

Of course I couldn’t fail to mention the Mississippi River, and the Illinois River was pretty impressive too. I’ve visited the Mississippi several different times in recent years including just a little farther downstream in April. I won’t bother to elaborate on its power again although I’ll note that I’ve always enjoy gazing upon it. Two of our races happened along the river on opposite banks. On one day the course went along a levee in Fulton, Illinois and the next day it did the same in Clinton, Iowa. I took this photo from the Illinois side (map).


Articles in the Heartland Series:

  1. Why, oh Why?
  2. How Not to See a City
  3. Foiled by Memorial Day
  4. Beyond Covered
  5. Not Just Farmland
  6. Americana

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Heartland, Part 2 (How Not to See a City)

On June 11, 2017 · 3 Comments

Undoubtedly we’ve all seen articles in print or online with titles like “Three Perfect Days in [whatever city].” They highlight the virtues of a given place with all sorts of supposed insider tips that push beyond the usual tourist hangouts. This won’t be one of those articles. In fact I’m pretty sure this could be the worst city guide ever. Why would I even include Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in a series of articles on the American Heartland? Even though the geographic footprint of the "Heartland" varied somewhat from person-to-person, undoubtedly little if anything in Pittsburgh met even the most generous definition.

That highlighted my situation. I never made Pittsburgh my destination. It always served as a waypoint on some other adventure, a perpetual bridesmaid of Twelve Mile Circle travels. That was a shame because it offered a lot. Nonetheless, I began to nibble around its edges on three separate visits in the last two years. Let’s take a closer look.


Great Allegheny Passage


Hot Metal Bridge

It shouldn’t take much effort for someone living in the Washington, DC area like I do to visit Pittsburgh. I could get there in about four hours if traffic cooperated. Sure, I’ve connected to flights through its airport and clipped past it many times before on the Pennsylvania Turnpike although those didn’t count. Oddly, I’d never actually set foot within its city limits until April 2015. I didn’t stay there very long, either.

Pittsburgh’s historic Point State Park (map), a tip of land where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers joined together to form the Ohio River, marked the starting point of the Great Allegheny Passage. I hopped from of a shuttle with my bicycle and followed its path for the next 150 miles (240 kilometres) to Cumberland, Maryland. Leaving the park, we took surface streets through the city for about a mile, merged onto a dedicated trail, crossed the Hot Metal Bridge and pedaled past abandoned industrial sites too numerous to count, in a steady rain. Thus ended my first trip to Pittsburgh. It lasted as long as it took to bike beyond its city limits.


Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium


Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium

I returned to Pittsburgh about a year-and-a-half later. This time I stayed a bit longer, my first overnight trip to the city. My real purpose centered on capturing previously unvisited counties in West Virginia’s northern panhandle. Pittsburgh put me close enough to my target to serve as a good staging ground. Plus I had my son with me and I needed to bribe him. He loved zoos so we spent a full morning at the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium (map).

When my son visits a zoo he does it thoroughly. We saw every single animal and exhibit in excruciating detail. That seemed fair enough. I made him go to a brewery inside of a former church in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood. Then I dragged him around to increasingly obscure geo-oddities for the next couple of days.


Rivers and Hills

That brought me to the latest adventure. I wanted to capture a bunch of rural counties in Ohio so Pittsburgh, once again, served as a great launching point. I noted in that earlier Zoo article that I really wanted to visit the city’s famous inclines. It became my singular fixation this time around. I had to ride the inclines. Nothing else mattered.

That, geographically, placed me on the South Shore of Pittsburgh across the Monongahela River from downtown. Station Square provided the best access to the inclines. It had a little bit of history too, with roots as a terminal for the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad and as a freight yard well into the 20th Century. Unfortunately it declined over time along with many of the rust belt industries.

Developers turned Station Square into an entertainment district in the late 1970’s, focusing on the tourist market with plenty of chain restaurants and sightseer kitsch. The Pittsburgh skyline added some colorful scenery as a backdrop. However, Station Square still presented all the ambiance of a generic mall, a place where busloads of middle school kids on their first overnight field trip might enjoy. It certainly didn’t represent the essence of Pittsburgh although I’d made that decision knowingly so I could get closer to the inclines. We all make our choices.

Ducks


Point State Park

I didn’t intend to ride the Ducks. Nonetheless, as we walked towards one of the inclines, I spotted a Duck filling-up and saw that the next tour started in only ten minutes. I guess I felt a little guilty for completely ignoring an entire city to climb a hill on a glorified escalator so it hit me at a vulnerable moment. Ducks, for those unfamiliar with them (photo), were used by the United States Army during the Second World War as amphibious landing vehicles. They could function either as trucks or as boats with the pull of a few levers. Various sightseeing companies purchased surplus Ducks and converted them for land/water tours. Pittsburgh had them too.

It was every bit as touristy as I imagined. Even so, it offered a decent orientation of the downtown area and I certainly enjoyed floating along the river for a unique perspective on the city. The inclines would still be waiting for us.

Inclines


Monongahela Incline

Only so many people could fit within a valley carved by the three rivers. Pittsburgh expanded greatly during the Industrial Revolution and pushed people onto the hills. Its mills and factories needed labor so many of the workers lived atop a ridge directly across from downtown called Coal Hill. Workers descended rickety stairways several hundred feet down to their jobs in the morning, and trudged back uphill again in the evenings. Many of them had immigrated from Germany and they remembered “steilbahns” (inclined railroads) from their homeland. Those would work great in Pittsburgh too. Nearly a score opened in the city during the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Only two survived, the Monongahela Incline and the Duquesne Incline, opened in 1870 and 1877 respectively.

We took the Monongahela Incline on a slow, relaxing ride up the steep embankment. A man who rode the incline as part of his daily commute gave us a tip: a tourist could save a few bucks by purchasing a single ticket with a transfer rather than two individual tickets. Transfers lasted a couple of hours; more than enough time to ride up, look around and ride back down. Now you know too.

Mt. Washington Neighborhood


Pittsburgh Skyline

Coal Hill later got a more attractive name, Mount Washington, and a reputation for spectacular views of downtown Pittsburgh. We lucked out. It rained intermittently all day and then the clouds parted as we rode up the Monongahela Incline (map). From there we walked along the appropriately named Grandview Avenue. The path took us from the upper Monongahela station to the upper Duquesne station. I would recommend the same route for anyone visiting. It offered a nice scenic stroll of about eight-tenths of a mile (1.3 km).

The city placed frequent viewing platforms along the ridge too. We even stumbled upon a wedding taking place on one of the platforms. The best views of the city — the most iconic images — occurred at the upper Duquesne station. That station also offered a unusual opportunity, a chance to see the inner workings of the incline. Visitors could pop a couple of quarters into a turnstile and take a self-guided tour of the machinery beneath the station (photo). We watched ancient gears turn and cables roll as cars climbed and descended Mt. Washington.


Wrap Up

So far my incomplete city guide to Pittsburgh includes:

  • Point State Park
  • Great Allegheny Passage Bicycle Trail
  • Church Brew Works
  • Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium
  • Station Square
  • Just Ducky Tours
  • Monongahela Incline
  • Duquesne Incline
  • Mt. Washington Neighborhood

Someday I would like to return and see the city properly, not as an afterthought. Twelve Mile Circle readers should feel free to suggest attractions I should visit when I come back in a few months or years from now. You know what I like.


Articles in the Heartland Series:

  1. Why, oh Why?
  2. How Not to See a City
  3. Foiled by Memorial Day
  4. Beyond Covered
  5. Not Just Farmland
  6. Americana

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Odds and Ends 13

On June 4, 2017 · 0 Comments

Twelve Mile Circle occasionally features topics that don’t warrant an entire article. I collect these items in a spreadsheet and present them all together every once in awhile. However I hadn’t done one of those in awhile and the topics began to pile-up on my list. Odds and Ends 12 appeared all the way back in March 2016! That surprised me a little. I needed to do some spring cleaning so I hopped to it.


An Island Apart


Malabo
Malabo. Photo by Embassy of Equatorial Guinea on Flickr (cc)

The small African nation of Equatorial Guinea featured an odd geographic arrangement. Most of the nation occupied a rectangle of land bordering the western continental coastline. As well, it included an island quite a bit removed towards the northwest, directly off of the coast of Cameroon. Yet, Equatorial Guinea placed its capital on that island and not on the mainland. The island went by the name of Bioko and the city Malabo (map).

That arrangement existed as a relic of colonialism. Europeans first encountered this corner of Africa when Portuguese navigator Fernão do Pó landed on Bioko in 1472. That effort didn’t stick so Portugal traded the island to Spain in 1777. Spain didn’t do much with it either so the British came along and squatted on it in the 1820’s when they found nobody from Spain occupying it. Spain got around to reasserting sovereignty in 1844 and the island remained in Spanish control until Equatorial Guinea gained its independence in 1968. Malabo became the capital by default because it was the oldest and most developed city in the new nation.

Malobo won’t be the capital much longer, however. Equatorial Guinea plans a new capital deep within its mainland jungle interior. Construction began several years ago and government function started moving to the new city, Oyala (map), in February 2017. This completely planned community may someday hold up to two hundred thousand residents, nearly a quarter of the nation’s population. The BBC explained at least one motivation. President Teodoro Obiang Nguema survived several coup attempts and he wanted a more secure location. Oil revenues fund its construction.


What a Mistake


2007-09-10-16-08-59
Rainy Lake. Photo by d Wang on Flickr (cc)

An oddly named geographic feature appeared as I researched the Pub with No Beer. There, just to the northwest of Taylors Arm, I spotted Mistake State Forest (map). I never did find the mistake that led to its name. However, I did learn that it covered 5,638 hectares (~14,000 acres) managed by the Forestry Corporation of New South Wales. I think I made a mistake when I tried to investigate Mistake State Forest.

Fortunately I ran across something completely unexpected and infinitely more interesting. Minnesota’s Star Tribune covered a situation where an 80-year-old error in land records wiped out a popular state trail. Minnesota sold some surplus acreage to a private landowner near International Falls in 1935 and forgot to record its sale. "And the buyer, a prominent International Falls businessman, apparently lost track of the purchase amid all his wheeling and dealing." The spot subsequently became a popular recreational area (map) on Rainy Lake. It might have a generally happy ending though. The heirs seemed willing to gift much of the land back to the state, although retaining acreage with prime views.


A Literal Name


Colstrip Montana
Colstrip Montana. Photo by Spot Us on Flickr (cc)

I noticed that a user landed on 12MC from a remote corner of Montana, so I took a closer look. The spot said Colstrip (map), which I considered a rather strange name. Wouldn’t it be funny, I though, if the name came from an actual strip of coal. Well it did actually, as the city confirmed.

Colstrip was established by the Northern Pacific Railway in 1924 as a company town to provide coal for their steam locomotives. The mining is open pit strip mining, where draglines remove soil above the layer of bituminous coal from the Fort Union Formation.

The coal mining tradition continued to the present day, with the nearby Rosebud mine being one of the largest in the state. Later, a large power plant opened up nearby to generate electricity for a huge territory surrounding it. However, Colstrip residents face an uncertain future as pressures build on coal. Nearly everyone in town worked either at the mine or at the power plant. Meanwhile coal begins to fall out of favor. It probably won’t be worth renovating the plant to make it more efficient. It’s too outdated. The plant was built forty years ago and is now considered "the nation’s 15th-largest producer of greenhouse gases."


First Name, Last Name


Welcome to Clinton, Iowa
Welcome to Clinton, Iowa. Photo by J. Stephen Conn on Flickr (cc)

I discovered an additional example of First Name, Surname Symmetry recently. This one involved an historical figure named DeWitt Clinton. He dominated New York politics during the early part of the Nineteenth Century. His service included mayor of New York City and multiple terms as Governor. He nearly became President of the United States with a respectable showing against the eventual winner, James Madison. Clinton’s crowning achievement may have been his pivotal role in promoting and building the Erie Canal. This opened a vitally important trade route to the growing interior of the nation. This singular achievement led to dozens of places named in his honor throughout the American Midwest.

They must have really loved DeWitt Clinton in Iowa, though. The state (then a territory) named one of its counties Clinton in 1837 (map). However the county took it one step further. Two of the towns that formed within its boundaries became DeWitt and Clinton, located about 20 miles (32 kilometres) apart (map). That formed an excellent First Name, Surname Symmetry.

Some astute readers may have already figured out how I discovered this happy confluence, especially the people who follow my 12MC Twitter account. I was in Clinton, Iowa three days ago although I’m back home now. Take that as a little foreshadowing of articles soon to come.

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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